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Introduction

John Guthrie

© 2018 John Guthrie, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0134.01

Don Carlos is the fourth play written by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). It was begun in March 1783 while he was still working on the domestic drama Louise Millerin (later called Kabale und Liebe, Intrigue and Love) and the historical domestic drama, Fiesco’s Conspiracy at Genoa. It was published in fragmentary form in the following year and in a first complete version in 1787. Schiller returned to the play several times after this protracted and interrupted four-year period of writing and published a final version in 1805, the year of his death. The writing and re-writing cost him much effort and reflects the struggle involved with changing his style and combining history and grand tragedy. Don Carlos is in all respects a transitional play. It combines many of the themes of his youthful period with the forward-looking idealism of his later plays, and it is the first in which he adopts a more formal, classical style using iambic metre, and aims to achieve greater unity of time and place. It is considerably longer than anything he had written before, its plot is involved and complex, full of twists and turns, but equally, full of striking dramatic characters and powerful theatrical moments. It is several plays rolled into one: a family portrait of a royal household in which tensions erupt, a historical play dealing with the struggle of the Spanish Netherlands as they were emerging from despotic Spanish rule and demanding human rights, and finally it is a play of ideas in which the fate of humanity and political idealism are to the fore.

Schiller’s main source for the plot was a late seventeenth-century French novella by the Abbé de Saint-Réal, which was based losely on historical facts. There he found all his main characters apart from Philip’s confessor Domingo. Saint-Réal’s work gave him the idea of an amorous attachment between Elisabeth of Valois and Carlos, which had existed before her betrothal to Philip. The Marquis of Posa is a minor figure in St. Réal and in Louis Sebastien Mercier’s play Portrait de Philippe II, Roi d’Espagne (1785) that Schiller makes into the play’s leading spokesman of Enlightenment humanism. Schiller also turned to Robert Watson’s History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain, which gave a more detailed and accurate historical portrait of Philip. But Schiller’s main interest was indeed not historical accuracy. He was keen to suggest parallels between the struggle for religious freedom in the sixteenth century and the surge towards liberty in his own age.

Schiller’s starting point was the figure of the youthful Don Carlos with whose youthful ardour he identified. The father-son conflict and the love of the same woman is exacerbated by the conflict between different political attitudes. Philip II represents the Age of Despotism and is surrounded by intriguers, while the love-sick and melancholy Carlos, lacking friends at court, allies himself with the Marquis Posa, whose ideals are those of the liberal Enlightenment and closer to republicanism. But the focus of Schiller’s interest changed in the course of writing and shifted more towards the figure of Marquis Posa. The political themes became more important to him, but the crisis which emerges was to show, ironically, how difficult it was to achieve those political aims in Schiller’s lifetime. In the middle of the main writing period Schiller was deeply interested in political idealism. He writes the Ode of Joy in 1785, proclaiming the brotherhood of man and endorsing the notion of a higher force guiding humanity towards freedom. He studies Montesquieu and Adam Ferguson. When Posa first greets Carlos, it is in the spirit of the brotherhood of man, intoxicated with joy: ‘A delegate of all humanity /Embraces you in me.’ Posa is guided by the liberal cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment. In one of the most famous set-pieces in German drama, the central audience scene with King Philip (Act III, scene 10), freely invented by Schiller, he demands freedom of thought and religious tolerance. The King pricks up his ears and listens. King Philip is a lonely and proud despot who lacks a friend in whom he can confide. Philip is not inhuman and Schiller does not disparage the institution of monarchy as such, but he will be betrayed by the Posa who has gained his trust. Posa’s plan is complex and dangerous: it is to have his friend Carlos imprisoned and then sacrifice himself so that Carlos can pursue his political aims. He has to pretend in letters that are discovered by his opponents that he is in love with the queen. He does not divulge this to Carlos and the plan predictably misfires. It is not that his political aims are intrinsically flawed or rely too much on abstract ideas, but rather because of the over-reliance on feeling, intuition and passion (Schwärmerei) which makes him an easy target for his opponents at court. His plans founder on the rock of circumstances and human weakness. The idea that Carlos will continue the struggle for freedom and contribute to the liberation of humanity is for the time being doomed to failure because the Spanish Inquisition will step in, suppress rebellion and restore the status quo. Thus the play ends in tragedy: Carlos’s love for Elisabeth comes to nothing, Posa’s political ideals are thwarted and he is killed, the King weeps for having been betrayed and the friendship which had seemed such a noble ideal and the seed of political freedom ends in death and despair.

The premiere of Don Carlos in Hamburg on 29 August 1787, with the leading actor Friedrich Ludwig Schröder playing Philip, was a great success. The play was performed in various versions during Schiller’s lifetime, including a prose version which he devised for the stage in Riga. In the nineteenth century it became a staple of the repertoire and has held its place on the German stage into the twentieth-first century. In English-speaking countries Don Carlos has been seen on major stages and with leading actors. A 2005 version by Mike Poulton at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre transferred to London’s West End. Poulton’s adaptation was based on a literal prose translation. The present translation by Flora Kimmich is of the full text of the 1805 version. It preserves much of the original metre of Schiller’s play at the same time as conveying its spontaneity and powerful theatrical qualities in modern English. It brings us closer to Schiller’s original in English than ever before.

Friedrich Schiller. Steel engraving by Johann Leonhard Raab from a drawing by Friedrich Pecht. Friedrich Pecht, Schiller-Galerie. Charaktere aus Schillers Werken, gezeichnet von Friedrich Pecht und Arthur von Ramberg. Fünfzig Blätter in Stahlstich mit erläuterndem Text von Friedrich Pecht (F. A. Brockhaus, Leipzig, 1859),
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schiller-Galerie_komplett_Bild_01.jpg